ON a rocky hill overlooking the main building of this vocational high school, several students stand beside a 6,000 square-foot, picture-perfect building - a testament to the success of their education. The calloused, rough hands and flannel shirts they sport make it obvious that these students are more comfortable with power saws and tape measures than pens and papers.
More than 300 students at Minuteman Regional Vocational Technical School were directly involved in the construction of a state-of-the-art child-care center on the school's 65-acre campus.
In the bright sunshine of an early fall day, the new building looks like an enticing five-day-a-week home for children. A small congregation of strollers graces one side of the building and around the back are two pristine playgrounds with specially designed swings and play equipment gauged in height for two different age groups.
The $500,000 building is the result of a partnership between this public school and Lincoln Laboratory, a high-technology research laboratory run by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The laboratory, located about a mile from the campus, wanted to provide child care for children of its 3,500 employees.
After looking at several options, Lincoln Laboratory decided to work with Minuteman on the project. The joint venture allowed the nonprofit corporation to design the building for its individual needs, says Carol Stokes, child-care manager at Lincoln Laboratory. She worked in collaboration with Minuteman early-childhood-education students to design the interior of the building and choose materials.
``I feel that this is the ultimate in technical education,'' says Dennis Kane, construction division coordinator at the school.
The construction students - including about half a dozen women - started with an uncleared site on a hill of granite overlooking the school. During the year it took to complete the building, groups of students worked on every aspect of the project, Mr. Kane says.
While Minuteman students have built several houses in the past, they have never been involved in such a major undertaking as the children's center.
High school and postgraduate students did all the construction, including the electrical work, plumbing, carpentry, and landscaping. Minuteman students will be responsible for maintaining the building.
Although Lincoln Laboratory paid all the construction costs, excluding the labor provided by students, the building is owned by Minuteman. The lab's investment in materials and other costs will be applied to a long-term lease; the company will have use of the building for 10 to 15 years, depending on the final cost of construction.
VOCATIONAL schools throughout the United States are finding that close ties to the business community are a necessity. ``It appears that the successful schools have to have that input from the private sector,'' says Betsy Brand, assistant secretary for vocational and adult education for the US Department of Education.
Vocational schools have long battled a negative image. ``In our culture it has always been very much valued to go on to college and to enter a profession,'' Ms. Brand says. While professions such as medicine and law symbolize the ``American dream,'' people who work with their hands are often looked down on.
``The stigma attached to vocational students is so unacceptable,'' Kane says. ``Certainly we want a kid to go to college, but what if you don't?''
The ``forgotten half'' - those who choose not to attend college - often graduate from traditional high schools without the necessary skills for immediate entry into the workforce.
Schools like Minuteman cater to such students, although 20 percent of Minuteman graduates do go on to college. The school also accepts postgraduate students into a two-year training program. These students are exempt from the academic course work and concentrate on practical training in their chosen field.
Charlie Norman is a 24-year-old postgraduate Minuteman student who worked as a plumber on the project. After graduating from high school six years ago, Charlie worked in mechanical assembly jobs.
``I got out of school and worked real hard,'' he says, ``but I wanted to make $40,000 rather than $20,000 [a year]. What I was doing wasn't going to cut the mustard so I left my job and came here.'' Although he's glad he got the academic training of a traditional high school, Charlie says Minuteman is an ``awesome opportunity'' to get practical experience. ``I feel bad that I wasted six years of my life,'' he says.
Dean Keeler, an 18-year-old who worked as a carpenter on the project, plans to attend college after he graduates from Minuteman. ``I want to own my own business,'' Dean says. Since he was working toward his high school diploma, Dean spent alternate weeks between the classroom and the building site. The practical construction experience he got through the Lincoln Laboratory project allowed him to secure a summer job at $12 an hour.
Shawn Cecere, a 20-year-old who is in his second year of the postgraduate program, worked as a plumber on the Lincoln Laboratory project. ``College wasn't for me,'' Shawn says.
``Technical education is not only for kids who don't make it in high school,'' Kane says. But he suggests that the practical education provided by a school such as Minuteman is designed for students who work best with their hands. ``That's the person who has a hard time struggling through the lecture-oriented curriculum of an academic education. He falls behind and loses confidence, and when he loses confidence he falls into the dropout category.'' Trying to help a student who works best with his hands succeed with a traditional education is ``like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole,'' Kane says.
Dana Malloch, a 16-year-old who is studying to be an electrician, was once that square peg trying to fit in a round hole. Dana says he never cared about anything when he attended traditional school. ``At least now I have something to care about,'' Dana says, ``My academics are better plus I have a trade to rely on to get a job.''
INSIDE the new, colonial-style building, mothers on their lunch break from work at Lincoln Lab are visiting their young children. Nina Warren, a radar analyst who has worked for the lab for seven years, holds her eight-month-old daughter Jenna. Mrs. Warren, who comes to see Jenna every day at lunch, says she is pleased with every aspect of the center.
Christina Logan, director of the children's center, says parents are excited about the quality of the facility, which includes six classrooms, three meeting rooms, three bathrooms, a kitchen, and observation rooms. One-way glass in the observation rooms will allow Minuteman early-childhood-education students to observe young children at play.
The center is now serving 14 infants, 18 toddlers, and 20 preschoolers; it has the capacity to serve 70 children. Tuition charges cover the operating expenses of the center and pay the salaries of 20 child-care professionals who serve as staff.
Although the center will accept children up to six years old, the focus is on infant and toddler care. ``That's the hardest to find,'' says Ms. Stokes of Lincoln Laboratory. ``It requires more staff and a different kind of facility.''
Standing in the shadow of the newly completed children's center, the bravado of this group of young student builders peels back to reveal an overwhelming sense of pride. Some will go on to college, others will become licensed tradesmen, but they each take with them knowledge gained only through the experience of doing it yourself.